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The need for commercial off the shelf (COTS) single board computer (SBC) products continues to grow as higher processing, smaller footprints and lower power requirements become more critical. For design engineers in medical, military, industrial, aeronautics and other fields, the desire for reduced size and heat also parallels an additional requirement for fanless operation. In this environment, engineers are constantly faced with the challenge of trading off various aspects of functionality to stay within a particular form factor. Finding COTS products that have all the desired characteristics and are also rated to perform in extreme harsh environments creates an additional challenge. However, there are a number of industrial grade SBC manufacturers who have been successful in designing and manufacturing COTS products specifically for use in harsh environments.

Radar tower aboard a US Navy vessel.
OEMs who design products that require high levels of computing in small form factors typically look to the x86 architecture because of its processing capabilities and wide industry acceptance. SBC products designed using this standard architecture are available in a variety of smaller form factors including PC-104 and PC-104/Plus, EBX, Epic, and Micro TCA. These highpowered, low-profile, industrial grade embedded form factors are supported by multiple vendors who have taken advantage of a growing trend in x86 chip manufacturing to design chips for extended temperature operation. As the demand by industrial and military OEMs for more robust, smaller, faster, and lower-powered SBCs increases, x86 platforms will continue to provide a solid foundation as capable vendors continue to push the design envelope.

One key to system reliability in harsh environments is the proper selection of rugged components, including processors with very low power requirements and extended temperature ratings (-40 to +85°C), extruded aluminum heat sinks and other fanless design solutions, and latching connectors (friction or positive latching) that can virtually eliminate the disconnection of critical components during heavy shock or vibration in the field Other strategies such as aggressive thermal management and virtualization of some hardware functions can also have a great impact on performance. Designers also utilize robust validation techniques to attempt to replicate conditions seen in harsh environments. This includes environmental stress screening and shock and vibration testing.